For the past month, I’ve been cheating. I’ve put my beloved but aging Lumia 930 aside and have lived life on the other side of the fence. Up first: The Moto X Pure Edition, Motorola’s take on a pure Android flagship.
Now part of the Lenovo empire, Motorola cranks out handsets the rest of the smart phone industry should be copying, and it offers purchase-time customization choices and prices that are unheard of anywhere else. Despite a few missing features, I find myself quite smitten.
The Moto X Pure Edition is Motorola’s new flagship. It starts at just $400 and comes unlocked and compatible with with every wireless carrier in the U.S. It is a unique value, and one that should not be overlooked by anyone considering an Android handset.
So what does $400 buy these days? Over in Apple land, nothing: A base iPhone 6 costs $650. If you don’t mind buying last year’s iPhone 6, Apple sells it for $550 and up. Still too expensive? You can get a two-year-old iPhone 5S for $450. Hey, what’s a few years between friends? After all, everyone loves Apple.
In the Android space, of course, new flagships from Samsung are priced similarly to the current iPhones. We used to be able to turn to Google, which offered reasonably-priced Nexus handsets until last year, for some relief. At that time, Google went off the rails, offering only a single Nexus handset, the Nexus 6, which was both too big (with a huge tablet-class screen) and too expensive. Somewhere along the line, Google simply lost track of why people loved Nexus.
No worries. Motorola is here to pick up the pieces.
The Moto X Pure Edition is priced right, as noted, with a $400 “entry-level” model that sports a flagship-class processor—a 1.8GHz hexa-core Qualcomm Snapdragon 808 with a 600Mhz Adreno 418 GPU—3 GB of RAM, 16 GB of internal storage (expandable via microSD), and a gorgeous 5.7-inch IPS TFT LCD screen running at a Retina-class (520 dpi) resolution of 2560 x 1440. You can bump up the price in $50 increments by adding more internal storage at purchase time.
That screen is gorgeous … indoors. But take it outside and it washes out immediately and is shockingly unreadable with or without sunglasses on. Checking it next to the iPhone 6S Plus, and the difference is obvious: I have a much easier time reading the Apple device in the sun. And with the Moto X, I have several times now walked into a shadow just to get something done on-screen.
The cameras are allegedly improved dramatically from previous Moto X versions, and the specs look solid, with the rear-facing camera boasting a whopping 21 mega-pixels, an f2.0 aperture, and dual-LED flash. But I was disappointed in the results, and will rate this camera as simply “good” to “very good” in my scale that goes from “crap” to “Lumia 1020.” (By comparison, the iPhone 6 Plus and Lumia 930 are “very good” to “superior” depending on the conditions.) Even in direct sunlight, zoomed-in photos betray an icky blurriness and pixelization I simply don’t see on better cameras.
(The Moto X camera app is a bit odd, too, and takes some getting used to. Instead of the standard “tap to focus, tap a virtual button to take shots” system, it will take a shot whenever you tap the screen, anywhere. This leads to very fast photos, but also some that are blurry and some that are in fact just mistaken shots. If you just used this one device, you would of course get used to it.)
More successful are the front-facing speakers. There are two, one above the screen, and one below, so they are correctly oriented when you hold the device in landscape mode to watch videos. I don’t do this a lot, but the sound is crisp, clear and loud. As with Moto Maker, I’m surprised more companies don’t do this. (Apple still offers the same crappy, bottom-mounted mono speaker arrangement it had on the first iPhone.)
The Moto X form factor is what I call “right sized,” meaning that in the ever-evolving understanding we have about what is the current smart phone ideal, Motorola nails it. This isn’t a big pig of a phone like last year’s Nexus 6 or the Lumia 1520, and it cuts a smaller and svelter figure than Apple’s iPhone 6S Plus despite having a larger screen. That, folks, is success, and the Moto X’s smaller bezels and designed-for-the-hand form really pay off. The wood I chose for the back of my phone helps, too.
Speaking of which, the Moto X Pure Edition is highly customizable at purchase time, using a unique Moto Maker interface on Motorola’s web site. Here, you can configure the basic color of the device, and there are 16, 32 and 64 GB internal storage choices. But where Moto Maker really gets exciting is in the other options: You can configure the back of the device with a variety of soft grip colors or, better still, real wood or genuine leather options. You can also choose an accent color, which changes the color of the speakers and a strip that runs down from the back camera.
This customization is a huge advantage for Motorola—the firm offers Moto Maker on its other devices, too, including the Moto 360 smart watch—and really helps you create a completely personalized experience. There is nothing like it elsewhere in the smart phone world.
Performance is excellent. I’ve run through the first training level on the game “Asphalt 8” on every device I’ve tested, and the Moto X pass was the smoothest yet. The device doesn’t get overly warm—I’m curious if the wood back helps at all with that—and it offers all-day battery life. I’ve traveled with this handset several times and only once was I nervous about the battery late in the day and that day included some heavy Google Maps navigation usage.
On that note, Moto X Pure Edition ships with a Turbo Charge quick-charge charger, which can allegedly add 10 hours of usage after just 15 minutes of charging.
The Moto X Pure Edition runs Android 5.1.1, and it will be upgradeable to Android 6.0 “Marshmallow” very quickly because it’s unlocked and because that is what Moto does. I’m starting to warm to Android, in part because of Google’s supernatural artificial intelligence, which you can see very clearly in Google Now, and in part because Google has really made advances in recent releases and closed the user experience gap with iOS. Android is no Windows Phone OS—you still play “whack a mole” with apps—but it’s getting there.
Motorola doesn’t install any crap on top of Android like Samsung and other device makers, but it does put a few unique touches into the system, almost all of which are quite welcome in theory. (In this way, Motorola is emulating what Microsoft does with its Signature PCs, which include a stock version of Windows but also key Microsoft apps.) But these additions bear a bit of scrutiny, in part because I never did get some of them to work properly.
For example, an app/feature called Moto Display allegedly lets you wave your hand in front of the Moto X display to wake it up and display the current time and notifications, as is possible on newer Lumias. I never got it to work, and waving my hands around in front of the phone like an idiot is generally embarrassing. (You can also make a chopping motion to enable the flashlight, and twist the phone in the air twice to open the camera. I never bothered with either of these.)
The Moto X also includes a voice command system called Moto Voice that I find superfluous given the existence of Google Now, which is excellent. That said, it does offer one unique feature: You can activate it by picking up the phone and placing it to your ear, so you can give more discrete commands. Given how clueless people are with smart phones in public, I’d love to see more use this sort of thing. That said, I never do either.
My biggest issue with the Moto X, perhaps, is the inelegance of its sign-in capabilities. Despite being a flagship, this handset doesn’t offer a fingerprint reader of any kind—as do recent iPhones and Samsung handsets—or even basic “tap to wake” functionality. So you’re stuck with the hardware power button. And then you have to enter at least a four digit PIN and—because this is Android, which can be dumb—tap a fifth, Enter, virtual button as well. It’s tedious compared to other phones I’ve used.
And that’s the rub. Despite its relatively low price—for a flagship, of course—its universal compatibility with wireless carriers, its amazing customization capabilities, its mostly high-end specs, and its lack of Android bloat, the Moto X Pure Edition still comes with compromises: A middling camera, funky gestures that I never did figure out, and no fingerprint reader. So your decision will come down to which features you absolutely must have and which you can live without.
I feel like it’s a great trade-off. The Samsung Galaxy S6 and its siblings have what is probably the best smart phone camera around these days, and a great fingerprint reader. But it also comes with far more expensive pricing, carrier lock-in, and those horrible Samsung Android customizations (not to mention lack of future updates) that really turns me off. And I really like the custom design of my Moto X’s real wood back. This is a gorgeous phone.
I’m not done testing the Moto X Pure Edition quite yet: I’ve got a Moto 360 review to get to, and I’m evolving my sense of what a good phone/smart watch combo pairing can accomplish. But even on its own, the Moto X Pure Edition is an excellent smart phone, despite a few missing niceties.
If Microsoft coughs up a hairball with its long-awaited Lumia flagships, I’ll have some soul searching to do. The iPhone 6S Plus is obviously a contender, and it does offer a superb fingerprint reader and what I’m thinking is an excellent camera. (I’m still testing that one.) But the Moto X Pure Edition is absolutely in the running too. And while I would struggle a bit with Android, the Microsoft app selection is excellent, and I could get used to this handset. Oh yes, I could.
So we’ll see what happens. For now, the Moto X Pure Edition is recommended for anyone who needs or wants a pure Android handset and can live with its few limitations.